All the King’s Men: Moral and Ethical Qualifications for Government Officials in Kautilya’s Arthashastra

The frenzy of election season often brings a spate of ugly revelations about politicians. The modern system of selection or election of leaders, with its focus on bribery and corruption, leaves much to be desired. One look at Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’ reveals that our ancient philosophers and political scientists thought deeply about these issues and designed nifty solutions of their own.


Kautilya, popularly known as Chanakya (c. 350–283 BC), was a scholar at Takshashila University and the adviser of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan Empire. His comprehensive treatise on statecraft and governance, ‘Arthashastra’, was written around the 4th century BC but identified by R. Shamasastry only about one hundred years ago.


In one of his most interesting chapters, Kautilya expounds the 4 methods or “allurements” which can help a king test the loyalty of his subjects by using different kinds of spies:

  1. The king shall dismiss a priest who, when ordered, refuses to teach the Vedas to an outcast person or to officiate in a sacrificial performance undertaken by an outcaste. Then the dismissed priest shall, through the medium of spies under the guise of classmates, instigate each minister, saying on oath, “This king is unrighteous; well, let us set up in his place another king who is righteous, or who is born of the same family, or who is kept imprisoned, or a neighboring king…” If any one or all of the ministers refuse to acquiesce in such a measure, he or they shall be considered pure. This is called religious allurement. 
  2. A commander of the army, dismissed from service for receiving unlawful things, may, through the agency of spies under the guise of classmates, incite each minister to murder the king in view of acquiring immense wealth. If they refuse to agree, they are to be considered pure. This is termed monetary allurement.
  3. A woman spy, under the guise of an ascetic and highly esteemed in the harem of the king, may allure each prime minister, one after another, saying, “The queen is enamoured of thee has made arrangements for thy entrance into her chamber; besides this, there is also the certainty of large acquisition of wealth.” If they discard this proposal, they are pure. This is love allurement.
  4. With the proposal of leaving on a commercial vessel, a minister may induce all other ministers to follow him. Apprehensive of danger, the king may arrest them all. A spy, under the guise of a fraudulent disciple, pretending to have suffered imprisionment, may incite each of these ministers thus deprived of wealth and rank, saying, “The king has betaken himself to an unwise course; well, after murdering him, let us put another in his stead.” If they refuse to agree, they are true. This is allurement under fear.

Using these methods, a king can effectively identify the strengths and weaknesses of his subjects. Once he has distinguished between his loyal followers and the truants, he can adequately appoint them in the following manner:

“… those whose characters has been tested under religious allurements shall be employed in civil and criminal courts; those whose purity has been tested under monetary allurements that be employed in the work of a revenue colector and chamberlain; those who have been tried under love allurements shall be appointed to superintend the pleasure grounds; those who have been tested under allurements under fear should be appointed to immediate service; and those whose charcater has been tested under all kinds of allurements should be appointed as prime ministers, while those who are proved impure under one or all of these allurements shall be appointed in mines, timber and elephant forests, and factories.


You can find a PDF version of the translated book here.

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